The Fallacy of “Social Skills Training”

If you’re Autistic, there are two words you are all too familiar with. In fact, you may be so familiar with these two words, that you grow tired of hearing them. Hearing them can make you feel annoyed, irritated, or even nauseous. Or, in some cases, hearing these two words may be triggering for you, as traumatizing or abusive actions are frequently taken against Autistic people in the name of teaching us this.

If you are related to an Autistic person, however, the story is different. Particularly if you are a non-autistic parent or professional, you may use these words in a positive light, emphasize them, repeatedly. These words are important to you, and you insist that the Autistics in your lives gain mastery over this concept in order to have a shot at surviving this world – no matter what.

Fundamentally speaking, neither perspective is entirely in the wrong. This concept is an important one, necessary to learn in order to survive in this world. However, the way this idea is taught, “trained”, and imparted into us often gets it wrong. It is ineffective at best; traumatizing at its’ very worst. Hence, it is not surprising in the slightest that many Autistic people will have a variety of justified negative reactions to hearing this term – from rolling their eyes, to displays of righteous fury.

There is a good chance you have already taken a guess at what these two words are. But if you are still wondering, I’ll say it: Social skills.

As Autism became more recognized in the 80’s, it was primarily considered to be a deficit of the social kind. Autistic people were different, communicated differently, and because it differed from the majority of neurotypical individuals, that meant something was wrong with us. And thus, one of the priorities of ‘helping’ Autistics has always entailed trying to indoctrinate us with “social skills” of some kind or another.

Usually this is done by teaching Autistic people to imitate neurotypical social norms – eye contact, the mimicking of nonautistic movements, the suppression of outward Autistic traits, and more. In fact, most of the time, especially on children, it is done in ways that would be seen as abusive if done to most people.

Forcing Autistic people to mask is known to be traumatizing, and it is honestly common sense: if you spend your whole life being forced to be someone you are not and suppress your very instincts, you will likely face a lot of struggle as well.

But beyond all that, let us examine the fallacy of “social skills training”. First of all, the idea that learning to interact with other people can be “trained” is… well, questionable.

More importantly, and unsettlingly, it is predicated on the assumption that Autistic people are the ones who are inherently “bad” at socialization. This is categorically not the case, and modern literature actually flips the script, showing that from an Autistic perspective, it is not us who cause most socialization problems – because Autistic people are less likely to make quick thin-slice judgements about other people. (This is not to say that Autistics are free of unconscious bias or prejudice, but we seem to be less likely to jump to conclusions about ‘different’ people than neurotypicals.)

In essence, it means that many neurotypicals will instantly see us as ‘deviant’, sometimes even unconsciously, and automatically judge us as ‘bad’ or ‘undesirable’ based on that. It is a story most Autistics can relate to – even in situations where we are not overtly bullied for our differences, almost all of us are able to sense when we are not quite accepted in a social environment. Sometimes, it is confirmed in the most heartbreaking of ways when we catch people gossiping about us behind our back. If you’re Autistic, the next time you find yourself in a group situation, pretend to “leave”, only to hide behind a corner and try to listen to peoples’ reactions. There is a good chance you will hear something along the lines of “phew, finally he/she/they’re gone”. It is absolutely painful to hear, but sometimes it can be better to know peoples’ true attitudes about you. Moreover, to the neurotypicals reading this – Autistic people will almost never engage in social behaviour that is so cruel. So who is the flawed one, again?

And no amount of masking will help. Even for those who can “pass” more easily, we shouldn’t have to live our lives like that. Nobody should. 

However, all of this does not change the fact that as social creatures, humans must rely on each other to survive. This means needing to develop the ability to interact with other people. We know forced masking does not work, and that treating Autistics as if we are the innate problem is both wrong and cruel. So, what is to be done?

Let us go back to the concept of “social skills”. There is a key word we need to break down: skills.

Skills can be taught, and skills can be learned. Playing an instrument. Driving a car. Sports. Combat/martial arts. Mathematics. Visual arts. Dance. These are all skills that many Autistic people are capable of excelling at (different skillsets for different people) – all, usually, without the cruelty that social skills “training” entails.

So, what is the key difference here? Practice.

Social ‘skills’ are, like all the other examples listed above; skills. And skills are developed with practice. Every example listed above are complex skills that can take years of practice to learn, for some people.

Social skills are no different. And no matter how much people try to train Autistic people to socialize inside a classroom, nothing can truly prepare us for actual socialization other than practicing in a live environment – the same as driving a car. Putting us in a classroom and giving us all these instructions and “roleplaying” hyperbolic and phony situations is not going to do anything to prepare us for real situations, in which dynamics can be a lot more fluid and people can be far more unpredictable. Most of these training programs utterly fail at actually teaching anybody to socialize.

So, I am going to suggest another option: giving Autistic people opportunities to “practice” socializing in live environments; getting to know real people, and having a chance to foster interactions and learn from mistakes in a trial and error setting.

This can be visualized as the saying, “sometimes you need to throw someone into water to teach them how to swim”. This does not mean we need to be thrown into deep water, or in the case of socialization, be put into high-stress situations on purpose right away – we can start as small as we need to, at our own pace.

But trying it any other way than live practice will just set us up for disappointment and failure. Either we realize that whatever roleplay exercises we do will not actually hold up outside of a controlled environment, or worse, we internalize the belief that we are innately broken.

All human beings need to learn to socialize to some extent. And most people practice naturally, and build their skills up. Autistic people deserve that same opportunity.

Autistic people have our own unique ways of communicating – and while it may sometimes seem strange or odd, there are many strengths to it – the tendency toward honesty and sincerity, being free of underlying motives, directness as opposed to subtlety, and for many of us, compassion and reverence for others, a strong sense of justice, and the tendency to question prevailing social norms. Autistic courage is never to be underestimated.

An empowered, happy Autistic individual can actually socialize quite well, and the friendships we make in that manner can be the strongest of all. The few windows in my life where I was confident enough to truly put myself out there, without fear of rejection or bullying, was when I forged the strongest connections of them all. We have a lot to offer to any social interaction, and deserve the opportunity to practice our way there.

Of course, this should be paired with aggressive campaigning for Autistic rights, neurodiversity, and inclusion, in order to decrease the number of hostile environments toward neurodivergent people. And if Autistic people are to engage with the world without masking, we may need to learn skills to defend ourselves – but that is for a different discussion topic altogether.

All in all, the current, popular model of “social skills training” has failed us, repeatedly. Or, to invoke a Mean Girls reference, “Stop trying to make it happen. It’s not gonna happen.”

It has created a sociocultural environment where many Autistics isolate ourselves; afraid to interact with others out of fear of ridicule and abuse. I think the current world circumstances show what isolation can do to a person – even those who tend toward introversion.

Therefore, drop social skills ‘training’. And move to social skills practice.

Author: autistinquisitor

An autistic advocate who is trying to raise not autism awareness, but autism acceptance. An advocate for the neurodiversity paradigm.

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